Don’t Bring Those Reds in My Shop Boss; I’ll Burn Those Russians Down.
An underdog finally gets his bone.
The thaw of the Cold War began in the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev. The General Secretary of the U.S.S.R. began floating new ideologies around with foreign words like glasnost and perestroika.
He opted to lead his communist nation in a new direction of “openness” and a softening of the iron fist of communism, with glasnost. Perestroika was the movement of “restructuring” the Russian economy, decentralization, and moving towards an economic system that would move towards a more capitalist system. In addition, summits with U.S. President Ronald Reagan would push the two superpowers towards nuclear disarmament. The world rejoiced in this news.
My father would have none of it.
As a Hungarian who witnessed, abetted in, survived, and then escaped the 1956 Hungarian revolution, my father knew communists and communism. There was no softening of his hatred for the Russians and what they had done with their eyes wide open and inhumanity in their souls.
When the Hungarian revolution broke out, my father wore the red coat of the communist soldier. Halfway through his military conscription, he was standing as Sergeant, his post, the armory at Killian barracks in Budapest. It was October 25, 1956. Two days earlier, university students gathered in Bem square to support the Polish worker’s protest against communist oppression and launched simultaneous peaceful demonstrations in Budapest and across Hungary.
The response from the communist AVH-state security police force was to fire live rounds into the crowd, killing the first of thousands of Hungarians in the conflict. The communist government declared curfews and prohibited gatherings and protests. The Hungarian people refused those orders. Instead, on October 25, approximately 10 000 Hungarian citizens marched on parliament demanding a radical change in government. The crowd, while incensed, remained controlled, non-violent, and were unarmed.
The communists met the protestors with force. Then, without further provocation, the Russian troops opened fire on the crowd of protestors; with hundreds killed and thousands more wounded, my father took action.
Knowing he was signing his death warrant for treason, my father shed the red jacket, opened up the armory, and began handing out weapons to fellow Hungarian citizens. The revolution was on.
By the second week of November, the mighty Red Army quashed the uprising-the iron fist had come down hard; There were over 2500 Hungarian civilians killed and more than 20 000 wounded. My father was one of the over 200,000 Hungarians that fled their country. Of those who couldn’t get out, over 5000 were arrested and handed down life sentences without due process.
I have cousins, uncles, and aunts, that simply vanished from existence among those numbers. No funerals, no graves, gone like dust in the wind. One of those arrested was my father’s friend Jozsi (Joe), who would spend ten years in a Russian Gulag for being a known friend and simply knew of my father but know nothing about his actions or whereabouts when Russian agents tried to hunt him down.
Then, against overwhelming odds, my father made his way across continents over oceans and finally came to the welcoming arms of Canada. Here, he built up his skills as a millwright, machinist, and capable mechanical inventor in the mining industry. Eventually, he would be the head of machine works for one of the world’s largest mining companies of lead, iron-ore, and nickel. He had done well for himself and had, by all accounts, overcome personal tragedy and won the battle as an underdog.
He never imagined that in his safe, isolated end of the highway, highest city by elevation in Canada, he would have to do a face-to-face with Russian military-industrial officials. And he was supposed to welcoming them with open arms into his shop.
The new sharing of glasnost and perestroika began between the governments of Canada and Russia. The exchange of information of industry brought the Russians to our hometown. It was a big to-do, one that my father had wanted nothing “to-do” with, but he had bosses, and bosses gave the orders.
A teacher of mine relayed the following events to me and our History 12 class one afternoon during high school. Mr. Double T, or T-square as he was known, had been my father’s apprentice before becoming a teacher. Thus, he was witness to the events that occurred one day in the 1980s’.
What I heard next (the first time I had ever heard about it) made my father a forever hero in my eyes. T-square sat perched on his desk, our classroom his captive audience. Since we were studying the Cold War, he found this account relevant. So there, in his brown on brown shirt and pants with a green tie, he regaled us with the remainder of the story.
The Mine-Boss: “Listen, Les, the fellows are coming whether you like it or not. I know the history there, but times change. So you gotta let it go. Move on. Piss them off by showing what damn genius you are here for us. Let them stew over losing all you good people back then.”
My Father/Les: “Communists never change. Russians are Russians just like pigs are pigs.”
Boss: “Les, I’m telling you right now, back down. Let it ride. It’s a walk-through; answer a few questions and move them on down the line.”
Les: “Don’t bring those Russians in my shop. I’ll burn those Russians down.”
Boss: “Les. It’s not your goddamn shop. It’s the company’s shop. So I’m bringing them in this shop, and you’re going to play nice.”
Les: “Suit yourself.”
The following day came, and as planned, the Mine Boss walked into the machine shop with three Russians in tow. My father and T-square were dutifully present as instructed. According to T-square, the Mine-Boss, who looked about as comfortable as a frog on bicycle walking in, visibly relaxed when my father turned and approached with an amiable smile on his face.
The Mine-Boss was walking across the shop floor. My father was walking towards them, aiming to meet them halfway. T-square, as directed by my father, stayed behind at the workbench.
As my father and the visitors met, the Mine Boss made introductions, taking great pains to exemplify my father’s skills and many contributions to the Mine’s operation while skating around the fact of my father being Hungarian. The Russians smiled, stepped forward with extended hands.
Next to my father was a bucket. In the bucket, a wooden rod protruded. My father uncharacteristically retrieved a cigarette from his shirt pocket (shocking for me to hear since my father did not smoke). From his pants, he brought out a lighter, struck it, and lit the cigarette. Inhaling slowly, he eyed the three Russians standing before him. He said nothing.
The Mine-Boss looked at my father, at the perplexed-looking Russians, then stepped forward saying, “Les, you’re a bit rude to our guests.”
My father looked at his boss, stepped to the bucket, and removed the wooden rod. The rod held the fuel-drenched and dripping flag of the U.S.S.R. at the other end. Then, putting the lighter to the crimson banner bearing the hammer and sickle, he struck it and sparked the flag into an instant inferno.
The Russians and the Mine Boss leaped back. My father stepped towards them, the burning flag in hand, and threw it at their feet. He took another stride in towards the Russians and yelled;
“Go and burn in hell, you communist pigs!” Then spit on all three of them.
T-square had by then sprinted into the fray, grabbed my raging father in a bear hug, and dragged him away from the shocked and retreating Russians, now being rapidly escorted out of my father’s shop.
T-square had no details any immediate aftermath, only that my father grabbed his lunch pail, a sack of personal instruments, and tools, then exited the shop to the parking lot, got in his car, and drove off.
The Mine did not fire my father. Instead, they decided a firm reprimand and a week off without pay were fair punishments for his actions.
After hearing this story at school, I hurried home aching to ask him about this event. As was customary, I would find him in the living room curled up and facing the wall on our small couch; there, he would nap until just before suppertime. Above him, on our living room wall hung a large framed map of Hungary and all her counties in color schemed borders and surrounded by their individual coat of arms.
There existed a long-established rule of never waking him up, and I cannot remember a single instance of any of us three children or my mother violating that rule.
At the table during supper, you didn’t speak unless spoken to, my mother and father would talk, and if they wanted an answer from us, they would ask a question. Anything we wanted to discuss had to wait until we cleared and wiped down the table, and my mother served a half-and-half coffee for the two of them.
My brother and sister both left the table, and I waited. My father asked me what I had done now; surely I must have something disappointing to confess, as had become customary to me. I told my father about History class and T-squares story. I asked him if all of it was true. Did that happen? Did he do that?
Setting his coffee down, my father looked at me and admitted it was all true.
“I wasn’t going to give those bastards the courtesy of my name, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to shake their hands.”
I sat there in awe of him. Then he added one more bit to the story.
“Tom did leave out one detail,” said my father. “He didn’t tell you why he came and grabbed me like that so that I couldn’t move my hands and arms.”
“Why?” I asked, feeling like I was staring at a completely different man than the one who had been my stoic, strict, and reserved father all my living years.
“He grabbed me because I was trying to pull my dick out so I could piss all over them.” So he said without any sign of humor.
“Geez! Dad!” I exclaimed, half shocked and half laughing.
“That might have gotten me fired,” he added.
Rising from the table, my father tussled my hair and told me to get busy with my homework.
After this experience, I would sometimes knock on my father’s bedroom door and ask, if he wasn’t too busy, could he tell me about Hungary? Would he explain the revolution, the Russians, and our family experience? Many of those discussions were painful, shocking, and tragic. But, on the other hand, many were beautiful, filled with patriotic love for the land, the food, folklore, and stories of beautiful girls with flowers in their hair and reading poetry to them while they sat crossed-legged in red boots and bare legs in the grass.
In those hours spent learning about where I came from and who we were, I realized something. For all the differences, misunderstandings, and disappointments between my father and me, the one thing that would remain constant and eternal is that we were Hungarians, and nothing and no one could ever take that away from us.